The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

“Rock and Hawk,” one of Robinson Jeffers’s most often reprinted short poems, has been regularly identified as one of his signature pieces—that is, it presents, in simple, direct form, one of his main themes. That theme has been called “Inhumanism.” It is based in the concept that humans, far from being the central point of reference in the cosmos, are a minor component of the process, significant only because they are capable of producing damage out of proportion to their importance. The idea is Darwinian, growing out of Jeffers’s post-college researches in medicine and biology. It can be considered an early statement of the radical environmental attitude.

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The poem accomplishes this by presenting what it calls a “symbol”: a falcon perched on an ancient, massive rock high on a headland. In this symbol, the poem states, “Many high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” This complex allusion draws several ideas together. On one level, thoughts of high tragedy have conventionally been those that best represented the values of human civilization, those qualities that humans prized. Here they “watch their own eyes,” as if distrustful of their own motives. Second, in one high tragedy, that of Oedipus, the hero literally pierces his eyes because of the horror he has been forced to discover about himself. Finally, if thoughts of high tragedy are thus suspect, their eyes betray fundamental human hypocrisy. The rock juts out, the single prominent figure in this landscape; nothing else can live there. The implication is that the rock has life of its own, or at least participates in a life. Its survival proves this; earthquake and storm have worn all else down. On this rock rests a falcon.

Jeffers passes then from establishing the scene to meditating upon it. He states that this is the proper emblem of the future, superseding those of Christianity and Mormonism. The image of rock and hawk together demonstrates the polar potentialities of existence: life in hawk, death in rock—both secure and balanced states in the cosmic cycle. Further, both remain remote from human interference and human misinterpretation. Because they incarnate and reflect the values that accept life and death as parts of the span of existence, they teach humans to imitate them to grow into the totality of the cosmos.

The balanced attitudes that rock and hawk illustrate are those of “consciousness” and “disinterestedness.” Both are necessary, as both life and death are necessary, and each is dependent on the other. These transcend human values, as this emblem out-faces tragedy. Tragedy may help humans draw success out of partial failure; theoretically, it teaches survival. Jeffers argues that complete survival will come only after incorporation of the union of rock and hawk, the combination of “the falcon’s/ Realist eyes and act” with “the massive mysticism of stone.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

Robinson Jeffers is remarkable among modern poets for his simplicity of presentation. He uses a minimum of effects, preferring, like his biblical models, to rely on basic devices to project his themes. “Rock and Hawk” is no exception. It is one of Jeffers’s “short line” poems, in which he forsakes his customary preference for long lines—those with more than five stresses. This poem presents seven three-line stanzas, each with three stresses spaced irregularly.

This stark simplicity serves his subject well. It is doubled by his diction. The poem first announces that it centers on a symbol, thereby spelling out what it is doing. It follows this with an arresting phrase and a classical figure: In this symbol, “high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” The figure is a double paradox—thoughts cannot literally watch, and things cannot in any case look at their own eyes. The figure reminds one of the celebrated passage in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600) in which Cassius asks Brutus, “Can you see yourself, Brutus?” Jeffers uses the figure to suggest a number of things, chief among which is probably that Western culture’s conventional ways—the high tragic ways—of looking at things may not be enough.

The second stanza presents the first part of the symbol, the rock, standing “where the seawind/ Lets no tree grow.” This personification is important. It suggests that control resides in the entire natural process rather than in some god or force. The rock is characterized by a double epithet: “Earthquake-proved, and signatured/ By ages of storms.” The first suggests not only that it has stood the test of time but also that it incorporates design features that surpass all the works of humans. The second uses back-formation to create the image of impersonal names—again, not human—carved into the surface, a testimony of the controlling natural process.

The persona employed in the poem now asserts itself. It chooses this image for itself, not for humankind. This reminds the reader that humans are the emblem-making animal. This symbol, fashioned by nature, transcends humans, unless they reject their earlier limited symbols to join the entire natural order in this.

The remainder of the poem presents a series of paired abstractions, epithets, and images to reinforce and translate the central symbol. This simple structure under-scores Jeffers’s simple but daring point. Reiteration drives the point home. Humans must learn from the natural order, but not by simply imposing their will and short-sighted values upon it. To show this, Jeffers inverts personification. He confers “realist” eyes on the falcon, not to suggest that it possesses human rationality, but to say that man needs to relearn the “fierce consciousness of the predator.” Similarly, the rock displays “massive mysticism”; it is not the bemused contemplativeness of humans, who assume indifference and superiority, but the total submission of stone.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

Brophy, Robert J. Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976.

Brophy, Robert J., ed. The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering, 1962-1988. Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1988.

Everson, William. The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1995.

Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Thesing, William B. Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Vardamis, Alex A. The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972.

Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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Themes